Posted on November 10, 2020

Businesses Trying to Rebound After Unrest Face a Challenge: Not Enough Insurance

Nellie Bowles, New York Times, November 9, 2020

It’s a prominent refrain these days from activists in the aftermath of arson and looting — businesses have insurance. Buildings can be repaired. Broken glass is a small price to pay in a movement for justice.

One new book, called “In Defense of Looting,” for example, argued that looting is an essential tactic against a racist capitalist society, and a largely victimless crime — again, because stores will be made whole through insurance. The top editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer resigned amid outcry for publishing the headline, “Buildings Matter, Too.”


While large chains like Walmart and Best Buy have excellent insurance, many small businesses that have been burned down since the riots lack similar coverage. And for them, there is no easy way to replace all that they lost.

In Kenosha, more than 35 small businesses were completely destroyed, and around 80 have been damaged, according to the city’s business association. Almost all are locally owned and many are underinsured or struggling to manage.


“We can’t call corporate,” said Ricardo Tagliapietra, who owns three restaurants in Kenosha. “There’s no backup.”

When people started burning down buildings in Kenosha after the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23, Tony Farhan prayed that his electronics shop would be left alone.


The shop, which sells cellphones, charging cords, headphones and speakers, was looted on the night Mr. Blake was shot and burned the next. So was his brother’s shoe and clothing shop next door. The apartment units upstairs burned with them, as did many other buildings in the working-class neighborhood of Uptown Kenosha, a historic and bustling multicultural neighborhood. Weeks later it remained a scene of char and rubble.

They have insurance, though they say it is not enough, and now they are tangling to get the money. But personal items they stored in the shops were not insured, they said. Mr. Farhan does not know how he will pay to replace his children’s winter clothes that were in a storage room.

“I have no job, and I’m using credit cards,” said Mr. Farhan, who is of Palestinian descent. “I’m going into debt, and I just got out of debt.”

Mr. Farhan’s brother Vinnie, 40, who had the shoe and clothing shop next door, said the logistics of wrestling the insurance companies and restarting his life were overwhelming. {snip}

In the units above the Farhans’ shops, all the tenants made it out alive, but several family pets died in the fires, the brothers said. {snip}


But the topic is a difficult one to broach even for the riots’ victims: Many on the left decry anyone who criticizes looting, arguing that it is a justifiable expression of rage, widely quoting (out of context) the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

At a recent antifa gathering in Portland, Ore., protesters shared literature arguing for the righteousness of property destruction with titles like “Why Break Windows.”

In a media critique earlier this year published on the website Refinery29, Britni de la Cretaz wrote: “Putting the focus on stealing objects from a store (during a pandemic, no less!) rather than on the injustice behind the looting, the horrific loss of life and racial violence that Black folks live with every day, is sending the message that property matters more than people. It just demonstrates the way that white supremacy sees more value in a TV set than in the life of a Black man.”

And Preston Mitchum, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and the co-chair of Collective Action for Safe Spaces DC, said in an interview: “Businesses will be OK. You can revive a business. You can’t bring back people who are killed by the cops.”

Within the argument that looting is a minor issue is the assumption that property owners can easily replace what was lost. But many of the small businesses in Kenosha’s lower- and middle-income Uptown neighborhood will not receive enough in insurance proceeds to fully replace destroyed property. And many business owners across Kenosha describe the losses in more personal ways.


{snip} At the local used tire shop, the owner, Linda Tolliver, who is white, is waiting for new windows to replace those broken in the riots (her landlord’s insurance is covering it). In the meantime, she estimated she was paying about $800 extra each month to heat the shop, which now lacks proper windows, and she is working all day behind plywood without natural light. So Ms. Tolliver said she was making do with less — cutting back on employee hours and forgoing the new winter uniforms her workers need.

The night after her shop was broken into, she stayed inside to guard it and watch what was happening. She was shocked, she said, to see so many white protesters destroying property in the name of Black lives. And they seemed to be well-off young people, with little sense of what a storefront means to a family like hers.

“It’s some blue-haired, latte-drinking hippie in Seattle coming here to raise hell while they go home to their nice beds,” said Ms. Tolliver, who is in her late 50s. “They don’t care about any of us.”


One company that became an iconic local scene of the destruction is Car Source, which sells used cars. Some 140 vehicles in its lot were destroyed by arson. The family that owns the lot, of Indian descent, estimates the damage at $2.5 million. They have been fighting with their insurer, which initially attempted to classify the damage as the result of a domestic terrorism incident — an event not covered by their plan, said Anmol Khindri, whose family owns the business. Most of their business records were destroyed in the fire, and many of the car VIN numbers were burned off, making it hard to prove how much was lost. The family hired a lawyer to help (the lawyer takes a percentage of whatever is paid out).

“I’m keeping my expectations low,” Mr. Khindri said. “I’m already broke. I’ve got no money. It’s been total loss.”

Even many of the businesses with good insurance will not be able to rebuild without outside donations or loans.


The government is sending $4 million in aid to be distributed by the Kenosha Area Business Association, but the city’s fire department estimates that damages from the late August riots are around $11 million. Local accountants are volunteering to help business owners navigate the daunting insurance bureaucracy.


The Rev. Jonathan Barker, who leads Grace Lutheran Church, said the riots hit Kenosha’s most vulnerable population. And he added that they tapped into an existing racial tension in the neighborhood. Although there are many Black residents, most of the shops are owned by Middle Eastern, Asian and Latino families.


Nowadays, at the Uptown site where the Farhans had their shops, there are just high piles of charred objects and melted plastic: cellphone cases, electronics cords, appliances and brightly colored pieces of children’s clothing sticking out among piles of blackened wood and bricks.

At the Car Source lot, the vehicles are now just rusted pieces of metal, with seats completely burned through to their frames. On the hood of four cars, someone has written in graffiti: Black — Lives — Matter — ♥.